WeWork’s 15,000 Employees Are In Purgatory

As layoffs begin, workers band together to salvage what they can and reflect on the warning signs they wish, in retrospect, they had heeded“If I’m going to get laid off, it will probably be next week,” a WeWork employee told me recently with the frankness of someone who has come to terms with a terminal…

WeWork’s 15,000 Employees Are In Purgatory

As layoffs begin, workers band together to salvage what they can and reflect on the warning signs they wish, in retrospect, they had heeded“If I’m going to get laid off, it will probably be next week,” a WeWork employee told me recently with the frankness of someone who has come to terms with a terminal diagnosis.In Slack, on WhatsApp, and in other group chats, he and his 15,000 colleagues are buzzing about the fallout from their daredevil employer, which, two months ago, looked to be their ticket to a better, richer life. Perhaps, finally, a downpayment on that Brooklyn brownstone, a second place in Miami, or a way to bootstrap their own startup.With a sense of surreal disbelief, they have watched as their ambitious, fast-growing company bungled its crucial initial public offering of stock; plummeted in value; flirted with insolvency; bought out controversial CEO Adam Neumann with a $1.7 billion exit package; and began laying off employees in numbers soon expected to exceed 4,000.In an email to the staff sent November 18, WeWork’s chairman, Marcelo Claure, promised that the cuts were “necessary” in light of the company’s financial position. Unsurprisingly, Claure, who was installed by majority shareholder SoftBank to restore order while the company hunts for a new CEO, made sure to point out that the layoffs would “increase efficiency and also accountability.”Accountability is a theme haunting WeWorkers a lot these days.In addition to the collective anger directed at Neumann and his wife, Rebekah, who served as the company’s chief brand and impact officer, employees are stunned by the lack of accountability on the part of other senior leaders, including SoftBank, members of the board, and other top executives.“There were so many smart people at the company — one, did people just not tell [Adam] what he needed to hear, or two, did he just not listen? It’s probably a little bit of both.”In a letter to management signed by 300 current WeWork employees, a copy of which was first published by the New York Times on November 8, workers decried the “deception, exclusion and selfishness playing out at the company’s highest levels.”“It’s surprising that no one was responsible, apparently,” says one current WeWorker.For this article, we reached out to a dozen current and former employees. Many people were reluctant to talk for fear of jeopardizing severance or because they don’t want to bad-mouth a company they still have so much invested in, financially and otherwise. Several former workers alluded to nondisclosure agreements. For those who did speak to us, we agreed to let them speak anonymously.“So many things could have been done to prevent this,” observes a former employee who left over the summer, around the time several company executives resigned. “There were so many smart people at the company — one, did people just not tell [Adam] what he needed to hear, or two, did he just not listen? It’s probably a little bit of both.”Arriving at a definitive answer to those questions is likely impossible — but it is something the WeWork diaspora will spend years asking themselves and each other.There was no shortage of obvious, egregious offenses that helped lead to one of the most spectacular corporate meltdowns in recent memory. The company rented out Madison Square Garden and the Staples Center for annual meetings, then booked Macklemore, DRAM, and Gucci Mane to perform for employees. Neumann, who shuttled among WeWork properties in New York in a chauffeured white Maybach, personally trademarked the We name, then licensed it back to the company for $5.9 million (he later returned the money). The wave-pool subsidiary. The tequila shots. Smoking weed on the corporate jet. Neumann’s phenomenal barefoot stroll through Manhattan.But well before WeWork filed its S1 paperwork for its $47 billion pre-IPO valuation, employees admit there were more subtle red flags if you knew where to look. The $850 million deal at the end of 2017 to buy the Lord & Taylor building in midtown Manhattan struck some employees as a turning point. Unlike previous real estate deals where WeWork purchased a property, immediately increased the building’s occupancy, and then realized the gain in value, the purchase of the flagship department store grabbed headlines but offered very little upside. “The problem with that deal was that all the value was already baked into the purchase price,” says one person familiar with the transaction.The decision to ban reimbursements of meat, pork, or poultry through corporate expenses was another episode when workers recall feeling something was amiss. Though some employees found the pro-environmental stance to be visionary, internal critics of the policy raised concerns that were both practical (how do you tell a client what to order at a business lunch?) and philosophical (why is our employer telling us what to eat?). The situation was further inflamed by persistent rumors that Neumann was spotted tucking into a ribeye or lamb shank in public.New executives were advised by colleagues to maintain a little distance between themselves and Neumann because his fast-and-loose style had a way of upending strategic thinking. And sympathy for his support staff ran deep; his former chief of staff, who filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in October alleging pregnancy discrimination at the company, was described by a source as “the nicest woman in the world who had to put up with his shit all the time.”“Everyone respects him for his original insight into the market. But the first time I sat with him, I remember thinking to myself, if I ever make it big, I hope not to be like that guy,” says a former WeWorker. “He did not treat people like human beings.”One thing that bothers many employees, in light of the company’s meltdown, is the stigma of WeWork as either a party culture or a cult of personality stocked with credulous millennials who hung on Neumann’s every word. The company’s lavish, mandatory summer-camp boondoggle in the English countryside in 2018, attended by every employee from every mar
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